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A Healing Journey for Alaska Natives: First Responders to Victims of Violence

This video focuses on community-driven responses to victims in Alaska villages. Although many challenges remain, well-coordinated responses that integrate tribal- and community-based approaches with other resources are changing outcomes for victims and communities.

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TAMI TRUETT JERUE, DEG‘XIT’AG ATHABASCAN: There's a lot of really awesome, strong-hearted people that live in the villages. You have to be. I am a member of Anvik, which is an Athabascan village right on the Yukon River. We're only accessible by air, boat in the summer, snow machine in the winter by the river.

ASHLEY STICKMAN, NATIVE VILLAGE OF KOTZEBUE, MANAGER, MANIILAQ FAMILY CRISIS CENTER: I am from the Louden Tribe from the village of Galena. However, I grew up in the village of Kotzebue. As a young girl, we did a lot of cultural activities—Eskimo dancing, preparing fish, the men would go off hunting, berry picking—a lot of subsistence.

SARAH LIND, SUN’AQ TRIBE OF KODIAK: I have a strong connection to this island because of my Alutiiq heritage. I have children here and they were also born here, so I'm really a third-generation Alaska Native living in Kodiak.

JOE MASTERS, NATIVE VILLAGE OF UNALAKLEET, FORMER COMMISSIONER, ALASKA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY: In Alaska, Indian Country is not necessarily defined in the same ways as Indian Country is defined in other areas of the country.

SHIRLEY MOSES, INUPIAQ ESKIMO, BERING STRAITS REGION: We have huge geographical differences. We have different make-ups of the communities and their leadership, their governance. We have tiny villages that might have 20 people and have traditional subsistence ways of life. And then we have non-Natives and Native people living together that have the huge village or the city governance.

JOE MASTERS: How tribal police departments or law enforcement or federal authorities interact on Indian lands is much different in Alaska than it is elsewhere.

SHIRLEY MOSES: It's all very different and very complex. And throughout the state, we have a problem with domestic violence, sexual assault. We need to address it, and we need to work together.

TAMI TRUETT JERUE: There's 229 tribes in Alaska; there's only 92 tribal communities that are accessible by road, so it's very remote. We, in most of our communities, cannot pick up a phone and dial 9-1-1 and get an immediate response.

SGT. MICHAEL HENRY, MAT-SU MAJOR CRIMES UNIT, ALASKA STATE TROOPERS: In rural Alaska, a 9-1-1 call will get routed to a dispatch center, and that dispatcher now has to figure out where this emergency is occurring in the very large state of Alaska, and then route that call to the proper place where they can actually have some sort of law enforcement response.

JOE MASTERS: The smallest communities, if they have law enforcement, it generally is either a Village Police Officer, commonly referred to as a VPO, that's hired by the village themselves, or even hired by the tribe, to provide basic services in those communities. Other communities have VPSOs, which are Village Public Safety Officers.

CAPT. ANDREW T. MERRILL, VPSO PROGRAM COMMANDER, ALASKA STATE TROOPERS: The VPSO program is a unique law enforcement unit within the United States, as well as in Alaska, in the sense that VPSOs are not state employees, they are employees of the nonprofits that we partner with and provide grant money to.

JOE MASTERS: And that's where the uniqueness comes into play, because there's virtually no area in the country where you have an organization that's not a government organization employing law enforcement officers.

CAPT. ANDREW MERRILL: Part of the requirement of having a VPSO is the village provides a public safety building or a public safety office. So typically that consists of an office space for the VPSO to work with his computer, and they also are required as part of that to provide a jail cell, a holding cell of some sort. In some cases, that's a built-in cell that's part of the office space, in other places that's just a cage that's bolted to the floor.

JOE MASTERS: When somebody reports a criminal offense or a sexual assault in the community, the VPSO's initial responsibility is to assure the individual's safety, preserve evidence, identify who was involved, and then quickly communicate that information to the troopers that are responsible for that region or area that they're in.

SGT. MICHAEL HENRY: There can be a significant delay in the response time, and it depends on a multitude of factors. Number one, how far away is the nearest trooper station, which can be anywhere from a 10-minute airplane ride to an hour-and-a-half to 3-hour airplane ride, sometimes more. And then one of the most significant factors is weather. Some of these communities we can only reach by airplane, and if the weather is such that you cannot land an airplane, we are going to have to wait until the weather clears.

TAMI TRUETT JERUE: The troopers have to prioritize calls, because they're responding to many, many villages, not just ours.

SGT. ERIC OLSEN, VILLAGE OF AFOGNAK, ALASKA STATE TROOPER – KODIAK: The Alaska State Troopers might not be able to get to a certain location for a considerable amount of time, so we rely on the local resources that that village or tribal organization may have.

JOE MASTERS: Almost all communities have people that have taken on the responsibility to assist when needed. You know, a lot of times it's very informal. Sometimes that may be a community health aide.

TAMI TRUETT JERUE: If it's a real endangerment issue in terms of that person's immediate safety, I know where the safe places are, and we'll get them into one of their homes or a family member that's a safe place.

ANDREW MERRILL: VPSOs are authorized to investigate all misdemeanor crimes. And so if it's a low-level assault with minor injuries, the VPSO does the full investigation. Anytime we go beyond misdemeanor to a felony-level case, then that case is the responsibility of a state trooper.

TAMI TRUETT JERUE: We don't have any forensic sexual assault nurses and/or people that can do evidence gathering onsite in the village.

ELSA DEHART, MS, RN, FNP-BC, APHN-BC, SANE-A, SEXUAL ASSAULT NURSE EXAMINER, KODIAK WOMEN’S RESOURCE AND CRISIS CENTER: Troopers will go out as soon they can, assess the situation, and will bring the victim into town for an exam.

SARAH LIND, SUN’AW TRIBE OF KODIAK, CONFIDENTIAL ADVOCATE, KODIAK WOMEN’S RESOURCE CENTER: In our community, we're very blessed to have a web of services that truly depend on each other for support, references, and then continued sustainable support as well.

SGT. MICHAEL HENRY: Dealing with the process of reporting a serious act of domestic violence or a sexual assault is an extremely difficult situation.

SGT. ERIC OLSEN: Alaska State Troopers, Sergeant Olsen speaking, how can I help you? Being Alaska Native myself, I want to make sure that we're being professional in what we do, that we are mindful of the customs, the language, the food, the clothing, the family structure and makeup, or it could even be their housing situation—that we're respectful of that in that we don't in any way, shape, or form put ourselves in a situation that will shut down the victim.

ELSA DEHART: If we have a sexual assault, then the SART team gathers, and it's usually composed of somebody from law enforcement, a medical provider, and an advocate.

WOMAN: Everything is all set up. I got the interview room ready and prepped, and I got the family room ready.

ELSA DEHART: The idea is to bring everybody together and do an interview with a victim one time, instead of having them to tell their story over and over and over again and re-victimize in a way. Even though this person's a victim of crime, when we see them, they're our client.

SARAH LIND: It's important to remember that victims will almost always have more than one trauma, at one or more times in their life. I'm a confidential advocate and my job is to help stop the hurt before more traumas get piled on.

SGT. MICHAEL HENRY: We have resources available to them, so that while they are dealing with the difficulty of reporting this horrific thing that happened to them, they're not also additionally worried about where they're going to get their next meal or are their kids going to be cared for, are they going to have a safe place to live?

WOMAN: In here is a bed, and you'll be staying down here.

SARAH LIND: I'm seeing a difference in willingness of women to speak up, to follow through with protective orders, to not just drop their case. So slowly but surely, I am seeing a change.

TAMI TRUETT JERUE: I think it's critical to get the community as a whole, whether that's through the Tribal Council, whether they have a City Council that's really active, and/or just a community response group that's saying that we will not tolerate this. Whether that's with alcohol and drugs or whether there's other circumstances, it has zero tolerance.

SHIRLEY MOSES: We're trying to help the families, if they need help to address violence or sexual assault, get the help for them.

TAMI TRUETT JERUE: There's going to be a huge learning curve. And part of that learning curve is to get out of that sense of helplessness and being victims as tribal communities and isolated villages. I think that saying, "No, we don't have to do that. We can learn how to help people who have been victimized."

ERIC OLSEN: Children are watching what's going on, and the children are our future, and so if we're able to do a good job now, just think what we can do in the future.

Date Created: June 16, 2020